For an organization that prides itself on nurturing bi-partisan support for the State of Israel in the halls of Congress, AIPAC has somehow managed, for the second year in a row, to be at the epicenter of a firestorm that is all about partisanship. To be sure, that is not the story that it wanted to come out of its just-concluded annual Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to accept former Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session of Congress, to loudly proclaim his opposition to President Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran. The speech actually took place during last year’s Policy Conference, just as 16,000 delegated were preparing to descend on Capitol Hill to lobby. Although I believed then and still believe now that the since-passed Iran deal was a terrible mistake, there is no doubt that Netanyahu’s audacious maneuver was more than a little harmful to AIPAC’s claim to non-partisanship. Many Democrats in Congress, even those who were against the Iran deal, were offended by the public snub of their President. And more than a few delegates were bothered by it, as was I. Subsequent to his appearance in Congress, Netanyahu came to speak to the Policy Conference and was, to say the least, warmly received. So much for non-partisanship.
This year, in the heat of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to front-runner status in the American presidential campaign, AIPAC felt understandably constrained to include him in the list of presidential candidates invited to address the 2016 Policy Conference. Again—AIPAC, as an organization, does not endorse candidates, nor does an invitation to address the Conference imply any kind of support. Nonetheless, many people were troubled by the invitation, saying that he had no place at that forum. But AIPAC stood firm. Trump is the leading candidate for the Republican Party right now. To snub him so flagrantly might feel good in the short run, but look worse than foolish in the long term.
But then the strangest thing happened—something that moved AIPAC’s leadership, as one, to publicly apologize shortly afterwards.
A threatened walkout against Trump never really materialized, and the room was packed and electric as Trump entered. I initially was pleasantly surprised to see that he was using a teleprompter, meaning that his remarks were actually scripted, and not one of his characteristic free-flowing rants.
But Trump just couldn’t control himself. He made a derogatory remark about President Obama–the first of a few such comments—and instead of remaining silent, or even walking out then, many people cheered… loudly. There was even a standing ovation or two. The more partisan and outrageous he became, the more that not insignificant group of delegates became enthusiastic. When he said that there was only one year left of the Obama presidency—“yay!”— too many people responded with a cheer. And when he said that Obama was probably the worst American president for Israel, he was cheered wildly. Standing ovation. Personal views about the Obama presidency should not have mattered. It was about the context. It was about AIPAC, and Israel. The reaction was bizarre.
I was, to put it mildly, stunned. I had been opposed to walking out en masse before Trump’s speech, as some of my rabbinic colleagues had proposed. To me, the focus had to be the larger goal of support for Israel, and not Trump. I have nothing but contempt for him, and I didn’t expect him to speak like a choirboy. But I was willing to sit on my hands, because it was all about Israel.
But I was unprepared for the response of so many people at the Policy Conference. What did it mean, I kept asking myself, that people were responding to Trump as they were? Standing ovations?
My first thought was that the reaction to Trump was a cautionary tale about how otherwise right-thinking people can be swayed by someone who gives powerful expression to their deep-seated thoughts and fears. That is, after all, a large part of the Trump phenomenon. But I realized quickly that that would be letting the people in that room off too easily. And clearly, that was also the thinking of AIPAC’s top leadership, lay and professional, as they struggled through the profound discomfort of Mr. Trump’s speech and its reception.
At the beginning of the plenary session on the final morning of the Conference, the morning after Trump’s speech, Lillian Pinkus, the President of AIPAC, delivered a brief statement, surrounded by all of AIPAC’s top leadership. These words were a part of what she said…
"We say unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the President of the United States of America from our stage… While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the President of the United States and our President, Barack Obama… We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone."
Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo, AIPAC’s leadership was saying, in essence, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” How sad it is that the Jewish candidate in this race chose not to attend the conference at all, probably because his views on Israel are far to the left of most American Zionists, and the most supportive statements about Israel were offered by very right-wing Christians like Ted Cruz, whose views on just about everything other than Israel are far from anything most of us would support.
We Jews who love Israel so passionately need to be careful—extremely careful—about whom we applaud, no matter what they say about Israel. Applause lines about Israel are cheap, and ultimately, as we’ve learned far too often, politicians of all stripes know exactly how to use them to play to Jewish audiences. The AIPAC audience in Washington was played by Trump. In honesty, all politicians do it to court the Jewish vote. But when a Donald Trump does it—a one—hundred-year storm in American politics—we have to be better and smarter than that. Cheering him is a mistake we can’t afford to make.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.